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Innovation as a leadership imperative

President Joseph E. Aoun hosts a conversation with Wes Bush, president and CEO of Northrop Grumman on Monday about innovation and leadership. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

In any setting, innovation and inclusive leadership are crucial to progress. This is perhaps no more clearly illustrated, however, than in the fields of technology and cybersecurity—fields with which Wes Bush, president and CEO of the global security company Northrop Grumman, is extremely familiar.

“The technology transformation we’re seeing around us has profound impacts on how organizations operate and how they are led,” Bush told an audience watching online and in person on the 17th floor of East Village on Monday. “But no organization exists in a vacuum; innovation is the product of the human mind, and it thrives or withers in direct relation to the health of the ecosystem around it.”

Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun hosted Bush for a conversation titled, “Fostering Innovation—A Leadership Imperative,” during which Bush made the case that diversity, inclusion, free inquiry, expansive thinking, a strong capital market, and the legal system all factor strongly into fostering an innovative spirit. And that innovative spirit, Bush said, is crucial to securing the future of the United States.

It’s clear to me that Northeastern University students are receiving an outstanding education. My hope is that you see innovation as a leadership imperative as you go forward.
— Wes Bush, president and CEO of Northrop Grumman

For example, Bush said, fracking—a process by which oil or natural gas is forced out of the fissures in bedrock—has revolutionized U.S. oil consumption, making the country less dependent on foreign oil.

“That innovation might not exist in other parts of the world though,” Bush said, because they don’t benefit from a strong capital market or personal mineral rights, the way the U.S. is set up to do.

Some of the conversation between Bush and Aoun merged their own areas of expertise, focusing on how industry and higher education can find benefit within each other.

Wes Bush, CEO of Northrop Grumman, tours the George J. Kostas Research Institute for Homeland Security in Burlington, Massachusetts on Monday. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

Wes Bush, CEO of Northrop Grumman, tours the George J. Kostas Research Institute for Homeland Security in Burlington, Massachusetts on Monday. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

Earlier Monday, prior to his talk, Bush visited Northestern’s George J. Kostas Research Institute for Homeland Security in Burlington, Massachusetts, where he met with senior leaders and researchers who are engaged in a wide range of resilience and security-related research, including cybersecurity, nanoscale printing that’s transforming nanomanufacturing, and autonomous technology, a topic Bush addressed during his talk.

Bush also spent time with students working at the Kostas Institute in field-related co-ops, and discussed with researchers the overlap between the innovation happening at Northrop Grumman and the innovation and talent nourished at Northeastern.

“It’s clear to me that Northeastern University students are receiving an outstanding education,” Bush said. “My hope is that you see innovation as a leadership imperative as you go forward.” After all, in his field in particular, Bush said, “Innovation is the heart and soul of our national security system.”

In order to innovate, though, leaders at any organization need to create an environment that will encourage it. This means discouraging risk-aversion, as uncomfortable as it might be, Bush said.

When something new fails, it’s usually accompanied by the negative public perception that there was something wrong with either its conception or its implementation, Bush explained.

“But risk is inherent in innovation,” he said. “In fact, I would argue prototypes not pushed to failure in their testing represent a testing program that is not giving the customer his money’s worth. After all, how will the technologists and engineers know what their prototype is capable of doing if they do not push the boundaries in its testing?”

Leaders, Bush said, must work hard to quell a sense of risk-aversion within their organizations in order to innovate unencumbered.

Wes Bush, president and CEO of Northrop Grumman, delivers remarks on innovation as a leadership imperative Monday on the 17th floor of East Village. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Wes Bush, president and CEO of Northrop Grumman, delivers remarks on innovation as a leadership imperative Monday on the 17th floor of East Village. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Diversity, too, is essential to successful innovation, Bush said. In response to a question Aoun asked, Bush said having a global competency is “critically important” to his own position.

“Our team has to have global experience; they have to have the ability to think about things in as broad a context as possible, and you don’t get that by spending all your time in the United States,” Bush said.

Finally, Bush answered two questions from online viewers, who asked about the future of technology and for advice to students looking to enter the field.

The answer to both, he said, hinged on convergence.

“What’s happening out there today isn’t just about one field or another; what’s really happening is convergence,” he said. “Convergence is about changing the outcomes. Those students and those employees who understand it, who can engage with it in an interdisciplinary way, that’s where the real power of innovation occurs.”

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